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August 18, 2013. By Jane Brumley.

Early Settlers Knotts Island and Lower Princess Anne County

Many geographical changes have occurred in the areas of our waterways including Knotts Island Bay, Currituck Sound, Back Bay and its land areas of Cedar Island, Ragged Island and Long Island. During the seventeenth century and eighteenth centuries, sailing ships came through (old) Currituck Inlet and brought our early white settlers to these islands and lower Princess Anne County. In the seventeenth century location of the (old) Currituck Inlet would have given these settlers a channel of navigation to all the waterways of Carolina and up north in Virginia. The inlet gave opportunity for commerce and travel that would remain accessible well into the eighteenth century and an early portion of the nineteenth century.

The first permanent settlement in the region of North Carolina, in general, has given the nod to Chowan and Nathaniel Batts. “Batts House” is neatly drawn on the 1657 Comberford Map. He was most important during that period because of his trade with the Indians of the Chowan area, and he was the first to carry out such commercial enterprises.

Our region became really well known to Virginia in 1643 when Governor William Berkeley brought a major military expedition against the troublesome Indians. One column was commanded by Thomas Dew and sailed through Currituck Inlet to the Albermarle Sound.

The most important early settler for historical records of Knotts Island was George Bullock, who moved to the Island at the same time that Nathaniel Batts moved to Chowan. This fact makes Knotts Island one of the oldest settlements of North Carolina. As early as 1657, Knot Isle appears on the Comberford map entitled “A Map of the South Part of Virginia.” The map has always been an important historical document giving credence to the settlement of Nathaniel Batts on the Chowan River; however, what has been ignored is that Knotts Island appears there as well.

George Bullock gave a deposition in the Virginia and North Carolina Boundary case in 1711. His age at the time was seventy-six and his sworn statement “that about fifty years ago I came from Elizabeth River in Virginia to Knotts Island and have lived therein ever since,” thus putting Bullock on Knotts Island in 1661. One of his most interesting remembrances was that he and others of the area were pressed into service of Carolina because of that colony’s engagement in a war with the Tuscarora Indians. Those men claimed to be inhabitants of the area known as “Knott’s Plain” and the Back Bay. Thereby creating substantial evidence for even the most skeptical critic to show that those early settlers were calling significant geographical features by names we still know today.

Those early settlers were apparently confused as to which government they owed their allegiance and their important taxes. Bullock reported that settlers “yielded readily their obedience and paid their taxes to Carolina” but that “they also covered their bases by surveying and patenting their lands” under the government of Virginia, fearing that they might lose their most important legacy. Such political disputes and land ownership questions would carry over well into the eighteenth century when the boundary line between Virginia and North Carolina would finally demand attention.

We can see that Knotts Island and Lower Princess Anne County was emerging as an important settlement as far back as 1661. Now the question often comes up as to how Knotts Island got its name. This historian, and those who have tried to unravel this mystery before me, all must admit they are still not sure. It has commonly believed that the name of the island is somewhat related to the connection with the Knott family of Virginia, an easy family to trace with its arrival in the colony as early as 1623. By 1635, James Knott had received a land grant in Elizabeth City County in which Knotts Island was located in the early 1600’s. The easy explanation is that one of the family members was granted the island and gave his name to it. Unfortunately, this is not the case in research done so far. The family has not been traced directly to the island. The family also included many well-known sea captains, one of whom had settled in Norfolk by 1685. It may be that one of them came through the area prior to 1657, but that will remain mere supposition. This historian’s more logical reason is that if one looks at a map, especially those printed in the colonial period, Knotts Island looks like a knot tied on board the sailing ships of the day. A knot was a simple term understood by the sea captains and cartographers who were drawing the most historical documents of the seventeenth century. It has been through careful examination of these maps that I have discovered what I believe to be, the true Knotts Island of that era.

From 1661 to the dawn of the eighteenth century, Knotts Island and lower Princess Anne County experienced tremendous growth. It was in this final stage of settlement that names we now know of first families of Knotts Island and Lower Princess Anne County were established. Through careful study of land patent records, the grant to Patrick White in 1682 establishes the White family as one of the most important early settlers. People were granted land by various methods at that point in time. They might transfer from England various family members and receive land in payment for such transactions, or they might acquire property directly from royal patents.

Entrepreneurs or rulers back in England believed that new regions would be settled quickly and that persons residing in these frontier outposts would feel a special kinship with their highly desirable land acquisitions. At the time of a grant, one had to build a house and raise crops or the patent/grant reverted back to the crown.

Other people granted land during the 1600’s included Richard Whicker (Wicker), Rachel Cornelius, Mr. Evan Jones, James Heath, Michael Jones, John Legatt, Joseph Perry, Michael Jones and Peter Malbone. Originally from Wales, Thomas Morris and son Josiah sailed, from Bermuda, through Old Currituck Inlet and settled near what is known today as Morris Neck in the lower section of Virginia Beach. And, of course, George Bullock was still around in 1682 and covering his bases as he would claim to do in 1710. Land was most important to these transported Englishmen who found themselves permanently settled on the shores of Currituck Sound and Back Bay. Land grants are the one record of themselves that have remained and now enable us to understand them more completely even today.

New discoveries of facts and sources through continued historical research will always be on the horizon and reinterpretations will hopefully shed new light on such an interesting time in our history.